When the Bush administration introduced a plan to destroy the editorial independence of National Public Radio earlier this month, I couldn’t help thinking back to a particular morning in my kitchen several years ago. While washing the breakfast dishes, I heard a report from Israel on NPR describing how Palestinian laborers were reduced to sneaking across the Green Line on foot or even donkey to avoid the Israeli army’s checkpoints and border closures. As both a journalist and a Zionist, I listened closely for any explanation of why Israel had deemed it necessary to block Palestinian entry. To my satisfaction, the NPR correspondent noted that the policy had come in response to a wave of suicide bombings.
By the time I reached my office at Columbia University maybe an hour later, though, my e-mail inbox had been inundated with scorching denunciations of the broadcast that depicted it as just the latest example of NPR’s supposed bias against Israel. Everyone on the listserv was urged to complain to the network and to consider withdrawing their financial support for it, whether this support was in the form of a paid personal membership or a sponsorship by their business. Naturally, the alarmist e-mail made no mention of the fact that the offensive report had, in fact, met the standard of journalistic ethics in acknowledging the reason for the barred border.
That morning’s events were not unusual. They typified an ongoing campaign — aimed against NPR, CNN, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and other mainstream news organizations — by the professional scolds who fancy themselves as media critics. Then, as now, I have no complaint about Israel advocates pressing for their cause. I just think they ought to be candid about what their cause is: not Middle East coverage free of bias, but rather the exclusion of any Palestinian narrative except terrorism. To put it in biblical terms, they would like to blot out the name of Amalek.
Until the past few weeks, groups such as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or Camera, have been only fitfully successful. They have managed to convince many news executives and reporters whom I know that nothing will ever get the watchdogs to stop barking. They have persuaded some large donors to stop giving money to WBUR, the NPR member station in Boston, and some subscribers to the Los Angeles Times to cancel their papers. And, for their true believers, these media critics have kept alive a fantasy that few Israelis would entertain: that we can pretend Palestinian nationalism simply does not exist.
Now, suddenly, the stakes are far more serious. The Bush administration has cynically connected its desire to censor NPR to these familiar Jewish grievances. It is trying to enlist American Jews as allies in a scheme to place NPR’s programming under political oversight. Far from ensuring journalistic integrity, the Bush plan actually would place NPR — and more broadly America journalism itself — on the path toward the Western European model of media, in which there is no pretense of fairness and balance but rather an embrace of partisanship and ideology.
It is no accident that Fox News, the favorite outlet of the Bushites and the Camera types, has turned the words “fair and balanced” into a smirking joke. Fox, a political phenomenon masquerading as a news organization, typifies the Western European model, except that its bias is Nascar right rather than sherry-party left. The advent of the Internet, the vast expansion of cable television and the demise of the fairness doctrine governing broadcast outlets all have further enabled the trend. No citizen need ever encounter a fact or opinion to challenge personal orthodoxy; one just has to click or dial to a political echo chamber of choice. There’s Rush Limbaugh on one flank and Jerry Springer on the other, or as the pop group Stealers Wheel put it in the 1970s, “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.”
In such a climate, the mainstream American media is practically revolutionary in its continuing beliefs that there is such a thing as a professional journalist who can act as an honorable broker and that the media’s role is to inform rather than to pander. Even before turning his sights to NPR, Bush’s chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, took aim at public television, appointing liberal and conservative ombudsmen and starting up a right-wing talk show featuring The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board as a counterweight to Bill Moyers’s left-of-center news program, “NOW.” Think about it: Not only does the Bush administration fail to believe that a journalist can be unbiased, it doesn’t even believe an independent ombudsman can be so — hence the need for two. What exactly is supposed to happen when they disagree?
Well, one can say that public television left itself vulnerable. It coasted for years on programming imported from England and on extensive government subsidies. Had it ever weaned itself off Washington’s poisoned largess, it could better defend itself from the new censors.
That is why there is hope for NPR to survive the Bush onslaught. It built its programming and its audience from scratch, becoming the most intelligent and distinguished broadcast news operation in the nation. Financially, public radio learned its lesson from earlier attempts by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to “zero out” federal support, and both the network and many member stations became expert entrepreneurs, reducing Washington’s dollars to less than 10% of NPR’s annual budget. Still, even a 10% stake gives the Bush administration leverage.
And with its reliance on private donors, NPR can be damaged by private boycotts. Which is where the Bush attack against NPR seeks to involve Jews. Tomlinson wants the network’s Middle East coverage specifically to be evaluated by outside monitors — that is, political appointees — even though NPR already has an internal ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, and has sent top executives to meet frequently with Jewish organizations to address allegations of bias.
Make no mistake: The censorship that would start with reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would inevitably reach into coverage of abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research, the occupation of Iraq, judicial nominations and virtually every issue on the Bush platform. Nobody should forget that this administration already has resorted to paying off pseudo-journalists like Armstrong Williams and credentialing impostors like Jeff Gannon in order to promote its policies.
Like any other American Jew who cares about Israel, I can think of specific newspaper articles and broadcast reports that have upset me, that seemed wrong on fact and wrongheaded on analysis. As a journalist and a journalism professor, though, I know the culprit is almost always haste, inexperience or human fallibility — not some conspiratorial decision by news executives or field reporters to damage Israel in the world’s eyes.
For that kind of coverage, as just about any Israeli diplomat can tell you, you just have to check out the Western European media. How terrible and how self-defeating it would be for American Jews, among the most enthusiastic practitioners and consumers of journalism in this country, to help wreck one of their exemplars, National Public Radio.